Will NATO come to Turkey's aid in Syria?
The United States has limited its reaction to the killing of at least 36 Turkish soldiers in a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in Idlib, northwest Syria on February 27 to a statement expressing concern over the attack and pledging solidarity with Turkey.
“We stand by our NATO ally Turkey and continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iranian-backed forces,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement on Friday.
While refraining from blaming Russia - which has total superiority over Syrian air space - for the deaths, Turkey has informed NATO of its plans for a cross-border operation into Idlib and requested support from the alliance to enforce a no fly zone over the region ahead of the offensive.
NATO, without signalling any intention to take the action that Turkey seeks, issued a statement that said: “The North Atlantic Council, which includes the ambassadors of 29 NATO allies, will meet on Friday 28 February following a request by Turkey to hold consultations under Article 4 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty on the situation in Syria.”
Article 4 of the charter stipulates that any NATO member can request talks when they believe their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Turkey could also invoke the alliance’s Article 5, which states that an armed attack against one member is an attack against all and creates the possibility of collective self defence.
Yet, most NATO members are very reluctant to be drawn into conflicts. France in particular has been trying to initiate a debate on what the alliance should do if Ankara requests assistance under NATO’s Article 5.
Ankara had called for consultations on Article 4 several times in the past, including after one of its jets was downed by Syrian forces in 2012, and in 2015 after a spate of terrorist attacks in Turkey. NATO’s reaction in those instances was confined to verbal condemnations of the incidents and is likely to remain limited to that this time as well.
In what appeared to be an attempt to pacify Turkey’s anger with the alliance, after an emergency meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday called on Russia to halt the offensive in Idlib. He said that NATO stood in solidarity with Turkey, and expressed condolences for the death of Turkish soldiers.
Stoltenberg said that NATO has provided political and practical support to Turkey and that the allies are looking to make further contributions, without going into detail. "The allies will continue to follow developments on the southeastern border of NATO very closely," he concluded.
Well aware that no action beyond verbal condemnation of of its actions would be forthcoming from NATO, Russia blamed Turkey for failing to provide them with accurate coordinates of its forces deployed in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Turkish troops were “among terrorists” in the area hit by Syrian fire. However, Turkey maintains the attacks occurred after Turkey had informed Russian authorities of its deployments.
NATO is unlikely to assist the Turkish military in the multilateral conflict in Syria, despite Turkey’s strategic importance to the alliance due to its location straddling the Bosporus strait and bordering the Black Sea, and by hosting the İncirlik air base in southeastern Turkey from which the alliance operates aerial surveillance flights.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.